Voice. It’s the Holy Grail of creative writing. In fact, it’s a rather poor word for something that cannot really be put into words. I say that because there are many different uses of the term voice. There’s the technical – active vs. passive voice, and then there’s the narrative voice/character voice. There’s also the writer’s voice, and another term that is often used interchangeably – tone.

The voice I am searching for is that one that defies definition. Really, as you’ll see if you read on – I’m talking about voice as a state of mind. Oh, by the way – let me just state for the record now that I am not an expert, or a professor, or even a published author (yet) and this is just my opinion – take it or leave it.

So, what is this mysterious ‘voice’ thingy?

I’m as befuddled as anyone. The voice in writing is something that cannot be defined. It cannot be learned. It cannot be taught. You either have it, or you have yet to find it. Sometimes even after you’ve found it, it comes and goes, seemingly at will. My favorite definition (of many) that I’ve run across in my personal quest is this one:

Voice is the “force that drives a piece of writing forward.”

Right. That makes so much more sense now. Thanks.

Basically, voice is the lubricant between the words you are shooting at them, and your readers’ minds. Voice will either make what you are trying to communicate flow smoothly, or falter. Sure, there are MANY other factors that can hinder information flow – but voice, when used correctly, is what engages your reader. Think about it in terms of acting: You could have someone recite the lines in the script dry and monotone, or you could have someone play the part – add a personality to it, make it real. The difference is in the ‘delivery’ of the line. That’s exactly what you’re trying to capture with voice – a unique delivery. Voice, just like any other writing tool, will enhance the packaging of your story.

I’m sold. How do I get me some?

Before discussing some ways to bring voice to your writing, let’s take a look at a few of the different types of voice, just so we’re clear:

Narrative Voice
This is the voice of the narrator of your story, and is thus tied directly to point of view. This voice establishes the position the narrator (and hence, the reader) will have in relation to the events of the story. A story could be told that happened long before the narrator lived, or it could be something the narrator witnessed first hand, or the narrator could be omniscient (know everything). Narrators can also be more(close/deep POV) or less(objective POV) involved in the events and the characters’ thoughts and feelings.

A third-person narrator tells us who, what and why something is important, and how it relates to us. We have to trust our narrator to tell us the truth, and to give us all of the important facts. But more than that, the narrator has to make us care, to convince us to invest in the characters and their struggle. Anyone can tell a story. Making someone want to hear it is what narrative voice does.

The perfect example of a strong narrative voice:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Even though this narrator stands at the edge of the opening scene like an observer, we have an instant feel for who this person is(someone educated, unafraid of making such a bold statement), what sort of a situation they are heralding from(a time/place where rich men were expected to marry), and exactly what they think of those circumstances(can you say sarcasm?).

Character Voice
This can be present in both first and third person narrative, though it’s trickier in the third person. Unless you’re in the first person, character voice is slightly distinct from the narrative voice. You find this technique used when the story is told from multiple points of view. The difference in character voice serves to distinguish one from the next. The ‘deeper’ or ‘closer’ the third person narration is, the more ‘wrapped’ in voice it can be.

Let’s take an over-simplified example. I’ll try to wrap the sentence “You never know when your luck is gonna change,” in different voices, just for kicks:

“You never know when your luck is gonna change.” Charlotte smiled and closed her eyes as she threw the shiny new penny over her shoulder. It landed in the fountain with a soft plink.

Agent Sorenson pressed the still-hot muzzle of his pistol against Johnny Fresco’s temple. “You never know when your luck is gonna change,” he whispered, low, deadly.

Now, what’s different? Sure, each of them is in a different scenario. One’s a man, one’s a woman. One is hopeful and light, one is not good news. But how? Why? There’s nothing fundamentally different about the line in either case. It’s the delivery that has changed – the wrapping.

The Writer’s Voice
I can’t find any clear definition for what constitutes the writer’s/author’s voice. I believe it is a mix of narrative and character voice (as I’ve described them here) as well as another element, called tone, or mood. Tone, mood, and voice are often used interchangeably. But for my purposes, I’ll say that the tone sets the mood and determines the voice. By tone, I mean the ‘overall feel’ of the writing. Is it formal or casual? Acedemic/informative, or strictly entertaining/light? Is it down and gritty erotic, or is it wistfully romantic? The tone you use to write in will set the mood for the reader. It also determines what voice will be used.

I’d like to throw in another term, and call it message. I believe that this is the soul of the writer’s voice. What is the deeper message you want your story to carry? Is it that we all end up down on our luck, and it’s what we make of those times that determines our value? Is it that you should never wear white shoes after Labor Day? Whatever it is, it all starts there. What is your message – what tone, mood and voice do you need to get that message across?

And what am I supposed to do with all this mumbo-jumbo?

Now that I’ve gone in a great big circle, we can talk about the elements of voice. This, I promise, is less confusing. There are basically two things that determine voice: word choices and pacing. How long are your sentences, and what are they made of? It really is that simple. Is it a short, clipped delivery of sharp, cutting words? Or is it long, flowy and descriptive? (And yes, I meant to type flowy. Flow-y. It’s not a word, but it should be.)

Once you’ve discovered what your voice IS, all you have to do is stick to it by asking yourself, “How would ‘so and so’ say this?” That ‘so and so’ is either a character, your narrator, or you. All of them reside in your own head (hopefully). So, the first step on your quest for voice is to get to know the voices in your own head and start to distinguish them from each other. What makes them unique? Or, if you can’t quite manage that – pick up a book, and start hunting for the voice – look at the word choices, and the pacing and try to find patterns. I wish I had more concrete stuff to give you, but it’s still sort of a mystery to me.

If you figure it out, will you let me know?

3 thoughts on “The Voices in Your Head

  1. Excellent post, Gwen! Great information on a topic that can be so confusing and often difficult to explain.

    It can also be hard to accomplish sometimes. I know I’ve started writing a story before and a couple thousand words into it I finally found my MC’s “voice.” Not that she wasn’t speaking before that point, but that it finally clicked what I was trying to say and how to say it given the character whose POV I was working with.

    Thanks for kicking off our Wiley Wednesdays on the right foot!


  2. Good job, Gwen! I like how detailed your essay is. We’re starting off with a bang!

  3. Thomma Lyn says:

    An excellent essay! You gave much good food for thought re: voice — a crucial element to good storytelling, to be sure, yet so difficult to nail down and say exactly what it is! 🙂

    I liked your approach to discussing voice — voice is not just one thing, though we writers often talk about it as though it is. Voice is a combination of many things when, together in the right proportions for a given story, give that story zing! 🙂

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